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Robotic arm with grain-filled sack instead of fingers  (Source: John Amend)
"Universal gripper" eliminates the need to program individual joints

University of Chicago and Cornell University researchers have designed a robotic arm that is capable of performing every day tasks such as writing, drawing and serving drinks. But what makes this robotic arm special is that it can complete these common tasks without fingers

Eric Brown, lead author of the study and a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, along with John Amend, co-author of the study and an engineering student at Cornell University, have designed and developed a robotic arm that can grasp and control household objects without the use of fingers.

While fingers and thumbs are necessary for humans to pick up a glass of water or write with a pen, Brown explains that fingers and thumbs on a robot would be more difficult than helpful. The fingers would require a computer to manipulate several individual joints, and in the past, robots have sometimes proved to be sloppy with the use of their fingers. Sometimes the robots grip too hard and break the item they're holding, and other times they don't grip the item very well at all and drop it. 

But now, Brown and Amend have created a "universal gripper" that omits the use of fingers completely on a robotic arm. Instead, there is a small rubber sack at the end of the arm which contains small glass spheres or coffee grains. When the rubber sack touches a desired object, a pipe sucks air from the sack in order to mold the rubber sack to the object's shape and cause it to contract. The contraction is a one percent change in volume, but it is enough to grab most items.

The idea of using a grain or rubber sack is not new, though. However, Corey O'Hern, a physicist at Yale University who did not participate in this study, did mention that this is the first time a study had been completed with so much detail and proper testing. 

"This seems like a much better way to go," said O'Hern.

Amend notes that the universal gripper's greatest advantage is its versatility, but adds that it has some trouble picking up flat objects, porous objects and objects bigger than half its size. But despite these limitations, Amends says "as long as the gripper can fold about one-fourth of the object's surface, it can pick up just about any shape thrown in its path."

O'Hern offered advice in regards to the gripper's problem with picking up certain objects, saying that Brown and Amend should make the sack stickier. But on that same note, having the gripper let go of an object would be more difficult that way.

Brown and Amend hope the fingerless robotic arm can be used for amputees in the future. This particular design, with a little work, could improve the way tens of thousands of patients in the United States function on a daily basis, and without having to control eight individual fingers and two thumbs, using this robotic arm would be simple. 

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RE: Nice to see a different approach
By stirfry213 on 10/26/2010 12:57:25 PM , Rating: 5
I completely agree with you. It is refreshing to see this kind of thinking.

Maybe the human hand is not perfect, but there is a reason why natural selection has chosen this form for so many animals. The basic shape of the hand/foot has been key to the survival of so many species. It allows us great dexterity, agility, mobility as well as other attributes.

RE: Nice to see a different approach
By inighthawki on 10/26/2010 1:35:20 PM , Rating: 5
I don't know why this post was rated down, he is absolutely right. Evolution has developed our hands this way for a reason. Maybe it was for things like climbing trees (gripping branches) where something like the robotic arm above wouldn't suffice. Just because this new robotic arm is capable of holding/gripping things doesn't mean that it can do everything a hand can...

RE: Nice to see a different approach
By amanojaku on 10/26/2010 1:58:07 PM , Rating: 1
Evolution does not do anything for a reason: you're assuming evolution is a response to a need. Evolution is an accident, typically the result of mutations due to external influence (e.g. gene-altering radiation). The mutation with the least physical disadvantages survives.

RE: Nice to see a different approach
By Thelookingglass on 10/26/10, Rating: 0
RE: Nice to see a different approach
By clavko on 10/26/2010 5:56:06 PM , Rating: 3
I'm sorry... no. There is no way that toughening of birds beak would influence it's genetic material that would pass to descendants. There are accidental mutations in the population, and some of the bird will have a slightly stronger beak. If birds with stronger beak manage to survive in larger percentage, then two parents with strong beak are more likely to mate (because they survived in order to do so), therefore the next generation will have stronger beaks.

RE: Nice to see a different approach
By gumbi18 on 10/26/2010 7:35:55 PM , Rating: 3
So what your saying is that if I hit the gym 7 times a week for my life I'll pass on that muscle mass to my offspring?

Evolution does not work that way. Genetic mutation plays a part in evolution not the environment pressures on the organism. The organism that has an advantageous genetic mutation has a higher chance to survive to pass on it's genes.

By conquistadorst on 10/26/2010 9:48:29 PM , Rating: 2
Love the arrogance and ignorance of Thelookingglass. Anyway, evolution's engine is in fact driven by mutation. Evolution does not always march "forward" in the strictest sense, it fixes itself naturally by natural selection. Maybe you latched onto the thought of "radiation is not a primary source of evolution" somewhere else and rode that idea to town in the wrong direction. Bottomline, mutation does drive evolution, regardless of how the mutations happen.

RE: Nice to see a different approach
By Totally on 10/26/2010 10:43:34 PM , Rating: 2

should be

1. A species bird has a characteristically small beak,and average jaw muscles. Normally eats small nuts and bugs.
2. During the bird's life its environment experiences a shift and instead of eating bugs and nuts equally, it eats nuts exclusively.
3. Within the species, the birds with stronger beak muscles better adapt to the change, and the weaker ones die off.
4. Weaker birds to don't live long enough to pass on genes/ or unable to compete with stronger males.
5. The weak genes are not passed on to offspring.
6. Smalls adaptation allow the birds to out compete other birds.
7. The cycle continues.

By inighthawki on 10/26/2010 6:18:21 PM , Rating: 2
You are right that they are mutations, but only the good mutations survive. The ones that give that animal an advantage stick with it, others die out. Since this is true, it doesn't hurt us to simply "say" that evolution in turn gives us things to better work with our environment.

By invidious on 10/26/2010 5:06:47 PM , Rating: 5
Just because this new robotic arm is capable of holding/gripping things doesn't mean that it can do everything a hand can...
Just wait for the pleasure model...

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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